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Does Staying in Touch with Children during Deployments Make a Difference?

You would think we would know more by now about how military parents and their children attempt to keep their relationships strong during deployments and whether it matters but we do not. In a previous analysis featured in On the Move (Friedman, Sigelman, Rohrbeck, & del Rio-Gonzalez, 2017), our team reported on parent-adolescent communication during deployment. We found that high quality communication (i.e., communication that is warm and supportive), as reported by both the teens and their at-home parents, was associated with greater overall well-being and fewer internalizing problems, whereas negatively controlling communication was associated with poorer well-being, at least as judged by the adolescent.

In a newly published analysis, we extended our scope, focusing on associations between communication with a deployed parent and the adjustment of children and adolescents ranging in age from 4 to 18. Data came from surveys completed by 180 at-home parents/caregivers (95% mothers). We measured communication quantity (frequency of communication per week added across 10 modes of communication) and communication quality (the deployed parent's warm and supportive behavior, as opposed to negative and conflictual behavior, during communications and the child's positive as opposed to negative emotions immediately after communicating--as perceived by the at-home parent). We used these measures, along with two family functioning measures (the at-home caregiver's perceived stress and marital satisfaction), to predict the child's overall well-being and behavior problems.

Our analyses showed remarkable similarities in both quantity and quality of communication for different age groups and for boys and girls, despite offsetting age differences in a few modes of communication (e.g., more sending of photos and videos for young children, but more emailing and Facebook for older teens). Deployed parent and child communicated an average of about once a day--most often in highly supportive and emotionally positive ways.

Our analyses also showed that quality of communication--the parent's supportiveness and the child's positive emotions after communicating--accounted for family differences in children's problem behavior and health-related well-being over and above differences accounted for by the caregiver's perceived stress and marital satisfaction--two proven predictors of children's adjustment during deployments. Frequency of communication, whether it was through synchronous means such as phone and video chat or otherwise, was generally not important. There was, though, one intriguing finding showing that positive emotion after communicating predicted low levels of problem behavior when communication was frequent but not when it was infrequent. The caregiver's perception of the deployed parent's supportiveness was associated with high well-being and low problem behavior regardless of how often parent and child communicated and regardless of marital satisfaction and caregiver stress. Further analyses showed that high quality communication was positively associated with good child adjustment in both well-functioning and less well-functioning families, not just in high-risk families with a stressed at-home parent or a shaky marriage.

We hope that our findings will be replicated by other studies involving families with deployed parents of more varied ranks and backgrounds. Likewise, we would like to see our findings replicated by studies that collect information about the hypothesized predictors in advance of collecting information about children's outcomes and in which some of the data regarding communication and parent and child functioning are objective (e.g., actual communications; measures of physiological stress).

What would we advise parents?

  • Deployed parents, by all means, communicate not only with your partner but also with your children; and at-home partners, help enable and support this communication. It's about giving children the benefit of your support during a potentially difficult time.
  • If possible, carve out some communication time for each child. In our study, 77% of the child's communications were with others present, most often the at-home parent and sometimes siblings; children may especially value a one-on-one talk now and then.
  • If frequent communication is impossible, don't worry. Quality is more important than quantity when it comes to parent-child communication--in both military and civilian families, in both families living together and families living apart.
  • Engaging in high-quality communication boils down to conveying interest, concern, and affection rather than being critical, argumentative, or dismissive.

This article was prepared for the Military Child Education Coalition's publication, On the Move and is based on the following full research report: Sigelman, CK, Friedman, SL, Rohrbeck, CA, & Sheehan, PB (2018). Supportive communication between deployed parents and children is linked to children's adjustment. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 58, 18-57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2018.08.002

Profile

Carol_Sigelman.jpg Carol K. Sigelman, Ph.D.
Dr. Carol K. Sigelman is professor of psychology at The George Washington University, where she also served as an associate vice president for 13 years and as department chair for 4. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Carleton College and a double-major doctorate in English and psychology from George Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt University. She authors Sigelman and Rider, Life-Span Human Development (Cengage Learning, 2018, 9th edition) and has published research on such topics as the communication skills of individuals with developmental disabilities, the development of stigmatizing reactions to children and adolescents who are different, children’s emerging understandings of diseases and psychological disorders.

Sarah_Friedman.jpg Sarah L. Friedman, Ph.D.
Dr. Friedman received M.A. in Educational Psychology from Cornell University and Ph.D. in Developmental and Experimental Psychology from George Washington University. Previously she was employed by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Education (NIE), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the CNA Corporation. From 1989 through March 2006 Dr. Friedman served as the NICHD scientific manager and one of the architects and primary investigators of a multi-site, collaborative longitudinal research project on the development of social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic and health development of children from birth through adolescence (The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development). She is currently a Research Professor of Psychology at The George Washington University.
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